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Dining with Mao

Before burgers and fried chicken invaded the Chinese republic, its founder swore by his custard and porridge. Reshma Patil reports.

world Updated: Nov 08, 2009 02:36 IST

Chairman Mao custard very like. And potato pie.” We’re talking to Liu Jian, a Chinese restaurateur who introduces himself as Kevin and is unusually fond of sandwiches. If you walk in on his grandfather Cheng Ruming (83) who spent 22 years as personal chef of Mao Zedong, the controversial founder of the Chinese Republic, you may find him fixing an unlikely lunch too — a sandwich.

To dine like Mao (1893-1976), knock on an unnamed black door number 38 down an old Beijing street where you will discover that the noodle nation’s culinary revolution began with the top ranks of the ruling Communist Party who ate western food long before McDonald’s first burgers were sold in southern Shenzhen in 1990.

A tall woman in black trousers and shirt will lead you through a courtyard with bird cages and a table set for mahjong, a Chinese boardgame, to private rooms where meals cost 580 yuan (Rs 4,060) per head.

It’s more like dining with Mao beaming beside the bar. Mao is in a black-and-white documentary on the flat-screen television by the table. The menu opens backward with photos of Mao and chef Cheng. The vertical calligraphy says the dishes contain no bean sauce because Mao despised it.

While shops and restaurants in China bank on brand Mao, this unnamed restaurant stays low-profile and serves staunch communists who order Mao’s favourite red-braised pork — with an odd mix of bread and butter, mashed potato soup and crepes. “Times have changed, we must meet the demands of modern people,’’ smiles Liu.

His grandfather is too old to chat, but Liu describes the family’s memories of Mao. “Mao’s lunch was the head of a big fish, zucchini, chilli peppers...very simple,’’ says Liu. Unlike the traditional Chinese who dine by 7 pm, Mao would work all night and breakfast at 11 am and order dinner at 1 am.

Chef Cheng, renowned for his western cooking skills, learnt cooking from foreign chefs in 1936. He cooked for Mao from the 1950s to 1976, when the Cultural Revolution that banished capitalists and intellectuals to the countryside ended.

When we ask if his grandfather cooked for the Dalai Lama, Liu mumbled that one can’t discuss him, but let slip that Cheng made beef kebabs for Mao and the Tibetan leader. “He stuck his tongue out at my grandfather, in a Tibetan way to show respect,’’ says Liu. “My grandfather was baffled but did the same.’’

The cooks don’t use modern additives like chicken powder. But long lives the Delicious Long March Chicken.